From Early American Life, December 2004
Setting an Early American Table
When you’ve worked hard to capture the spirit of early America, you may want everything for your holiday feast to be right, right down to the right spoon at the right of each plate. That can be both a challenge and a curse. Only hard-core reenactors regularly put up with the real dirt and grit of times foregone, and no one wants to dip into a communal pot. But putting a set of Jensen Danish Modern silver on a table used by Puritan forebears may be more heresy that your primitive spirit can tolerate. You want to keep the traditions of early America in your modern holiday table setting.
When we thought about getting it right, we went right to the source. We surveyed period museums including Colonial Williamsburg, Conner Prarie, Plimoth Plantation, and Winterthur for their advice on chronologically correct table settings. But with a quick assay, we discovered that even the wealth of the most successful Virginia planter could not afford today’s prices of the originals used by the poorest New England grub farmer. And you’d need a lot of it.
“If you were expecting company, say if the minister stopped by, you would put your best broadcloth on the table, but the hostess would be at her very best if the tablecloth were hardly visible,” says Joyce Newby, program supervisor for foodways at Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana. Moreover, we would not want to risk irreplaceable museum pieces even on holiday gastronomic challenges. Not to mention that lead glazes, dubious preservatives, and a centuries-old collection of microorganisms make putting even the simplest antique utensil in the mouth a potential challenge to the modern health care system.
On the table, we determined that to share a meal we would have to tolerate— even encourage—the use of reproductions. But once we made that step, we needed to be sure we were trodding a path as close to the original as possible. Can you, with relatively modest means and access only to the output of current hands, mimic the cutlery and dishes of days gone by? With the help of friends at the Seraph, we determined not to show you the mere possibility, but to have this primer in creating a period table with accessible but accurate handmade reproduction goods.
American history, of course, spans more than twenty generations, each with its own tastes and technology. Even if we divide the embryonic years of our nation into a few periods, we see definite differences in the tools of the table. To give a taste of each, we present five takes on the early American table, two from its most primitive years, two from the emerging nation, and one of the more refined colony, not certain whether to nip its ties with the motherland.”
Woodenware or treen not only looks primitive, it is the most primitive tableware in nearly any culture. Notes Debbie Harper, curator of education at Winterthur, “Woodenware is extremely common because it was readily available.” The only raw materials needed were a supply of trees, which the earliest colonies had in abundance. A simple plank might do for moving or serving meat or fish in the roughest home, although soup could be a challenge. But a little handwork quickly yields bowls, even cups.
A primitive lathe helps set a refined table—smoothly spun plates, dishes, and bowls. In the same period, other natural items might complete the table. Horn yields cups and scoops. A slice of slate makes a server or plate. Be as creative as your foremothers.
Treen is appropriate for any period from the earliest colonial times—you might even find a wooden mixing bowl in a modern kitchen. But for an accurate representation of a seventeenthcentury table, treen would not be out of place in any but the most elegant home.”
As shown at left, treen is appropriate to very early colonial and primitive homes. Hard-carved treen dishes are available from many sources. These are manufactured reproductions distressed by the Seraph to match period style. The horn drinking cups are by Four Hands; the hanging utensils in the background by Madison Bay. The bread, by the Sturbridge Bakery, rests on rough slate.
By colonial times much of Europe had been denuded of its forests. (New sources of supply—especially for navies—was one of the chief reasons overseas nations greedily eyed this new land.) Delft was one alternative to woodenware. “Delft tried to represent the Chinese look as a cheap alternative to porcelain,” says Susan Cook, chief curator at Conner Prairie. “But it did not hold up as well.” Made from local clays, delft was tin-glazed white with blue or polychrome patterns. It got its name from the Dutch city that was long the center of its production, but by the end of the sixteenth century it was being made in England as well. Delft found its way across the Atlantic with the earliest colonists, particularly in Dutch settlements along the Hudson River (but don’t forget the Plymouth Pilgrims spent twenty years in Holland, too).
Your guest will find delft familiar. Plates and bowls look like modern ceramics except for their more primitive colors, patterns, and lack of uniformity. In early colonial times, delft was handmade without machine precision. Every plate was unique, and none was perfect. A table set with delft is appropriate for a modest home at least up to the Revolutionary War.”
As shown at right, Delft was an early, inexpensive alternative to porcelain. Julia Smith made these reproduction pieces including the dish, mug, master salt and albarello, a large 17th c. ointment pot. The spoon, by Pewter Reproductions, features a trefoil end that would be used for stabbing food in lieu of a fork. The handblown Roemer glass wears the Seraph’s housebrand.
At the time the first colonials arrived in America, only the wealthy could afford pewter. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, it was becoming the favored tableware for the burgeoning merchant class. “Pewter gave a nice shine to the tables of people who did not have access to silver,” Harper says. Its metallic luster gave a richer look than mere wood, and it could be cast into any shape—from plate to tea kettle, even spoons and forks. Better still it didn’t readily break (as treen and delft might) and if it was dented, a hammer made quick (though perhaps inelegant) repairs. Or it could be recycled into new table settings.
Pewter is appropriate for any table set to mimic eighteenth-century times, particularly around the Revolution. Spun pewter—the thinner, more elegant ware—came later, after about 1815, so be picky what you use for setting an accurate eighteenth-century table. Old pewter may contain lead in its alloy, so use only modern, lead-free reproductions to eat from.
As shown at left, pewter moved from upper class estates in the 17th c. to merchant class homes in the 18th c. The tin-based alloy could be cast into almost any kind of tableware including the plates, bowls, salt & pepper, pitcher and teapot shown here, all from the Seraph stockroom (similar items are available from many hand-crafters). The three-pronged fork, accurate to the 18th c. period,would be used for stabbing food, not for placing morsels in the mouth.
Not everyone could afford pewter or imported Delft. But busy American hands made do with the materials they had, like iron-stained red clay. With a primitive wheel, some lead for glazing, and a wood-fired kiln, they made redware. “With redware we are talking very cheap,” Cook says. “It is usually locally produced of local clay.” Redware dishes might have been a little rough, but they were ready for any meal that might be heaped atop them. To brighten the table, the potter could add a quick design in slip, sgrafitto, or even sculpt the clay a bit.
For the modest table, redware is appropriate for any period after America’s embryonic years. Cheap massproduced pottery pushed it off most tables by the nineteenth century, but if you’re out on the frontier, far, far west (say Kentucky or even distant Indiana), redware might serve you until the Civil War. But choose reproduction redware rather than real antiques, Cook warns. “You don’t want to eat off old redware because of the lead in the glaze. Make sure it has lead-free glaze if you buy it new. A leaded glaze has more of a glossy look. It makes the redware look better, but you cannot eat off it.”
As shown at right, redware, locally made and inexpensive, might be found in any early American home after the early colonial years. Julia Smith threw the mug while the rest of this redware is from the Seraph. Family Heirloom Weavers made the table runner; Weaver’s Corner, the serviette (napkin). The candlestick is from the Tin Peddler and the big pewter spoon, Pewter Reproductions.
Those with wealth enough to import their tableware (or seafaring families who might import their own) would show off their fortune by celebrating with expensive Canton porcelain. Centuries earlier the Chinese had discovered the secrets of making true porcelain— special kaolin clay and a high firing temperature—and had developed their skills to an art. “Europeans could not figure out how to make it, so they held it in high regard,” Cook says. “It was hard to get and very expensive.” To impress guests, a wealthy landowner or merchant in the eighteenth century or earlier would bring out his porcelain. But true porcelain fell from favor after Johannn Friedrich Böttger figured out the Chinese secret in 1709, and later in the century when Josiah Wedgwood created attractive but less expensive creamware, which he called Queen’s ware. Even today, Chinese porcelain makes an elegant table indeed.
As shown at left, Chinese export porcelain, sometimes called Canton ware, might be found in a wealthy planter’s estate or home of a sea captain. The pattern reproduced here is Blue Willow, still in production by many chinaware makers. The serviette is from Weavers Corner and the teapot from Madison Bay. Although the pineapples are artificial, the real fruit might be found as a sign of hospitality in colonial homes.
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